The first clear memories of my childhood began in the town of Los Gatos, located in south end of Silicon Valley and nestled against the base of the Santa Cruz mountains. Our family had just moved from San Francisco to the last house on a dead-end street that was surround on three sides by prune and apricot orchards, and the town was changing fast from a farming and logging base to a service and retail economy. The neighborhood dads worked further out in the valley at places like the Ford and General Motors assembly plants, and our father worked at a factory next to the massive Food Machinery Corporation plant, where they were busy churning out 98,000 M-113 armored personal carriers and later M-2 Bradley armored fighting vehicles.
Our Mom worked first as a school yard duty, then a school librarian, followed by 20 years in city and county librarian positions. She would pack our lunches and make us four kids and Dad breakfast before going to work, after which she would cook dinner and do housework until she collapsed on the couch and fell asleep around 8:00 pm, only to awaken a half hour later and profusely apologize to no one in particular for her laziness and then go back to doing housework for the next two hours.
The trip to my kindergarten class for me meant a mile and a half trek through orchards and back alleys alone to San Thomas Aquino school, something almost no parent today would even think of allowing, but back then it was the norm and we never felt like there was any real risk other than the car traffic.
The neighborhood was a genuine melting pot and most of the faces in my kindergarten class were brown, we didn’t have any Blacks but there were plenty of Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos. Living there I never recall ever hearing a child use a racial slur or ever having any issues with anyone that were race related, we were all just working class kids and we all got along. Once in a while we would hear an old timer say something about “them Japs”, but the war was still a pretty fresh memory for many and a painful one too for those that had lost a son or father.
My big sister’s best friend was Japanese, and my brother would go down the street to play basketball with the Lee brothers, who’s immigrant parents owned the local Chinese restaurant. Every boy in my kindergarten class had a mad crush on our adorable pigtailed Mexican twin sister classmates, and we would chase them around the playground as they squealed in delight. The whole class was invited to their birthday party held at their home, which was a very humble but well-kept mud sill structure that was typical at the time for their farm worker parents who didn’t speak a word of English. They were very poor but very hospitable, and the immigrant family made a good impression on the gringo kids and their moms in attendance.
One day our next door neighbor from came over and asked if he could watch the Mohamed Ali fight with our dad as his TV set was broken. He was a tall Texan, and after he sat down he exclaimed ” I want to see that n***er get his ass beat!”. Mom was instantly showing signs of a very rare melt-down and Dad stood up and said “We don’t use that word in this house” as the Texan got to his feet and went toe-to-toe with him. For what seemed like a lifetime we watched in horror as it looked like punches were going to be thrown, which Dad was known to do as he was raised on the tough streets of San Francisco’s Mission district during the depression. But the big Texan mumbled some sort of apology and sat-down, and things returned to a semblance of normalcy again without the fisticuffs breaking out.
When I was in first grade I visited a friend’s home nearby, which was just a scant few feet away from the Southern Pacific rail line. This was my first experience with genuine poverty, as when I entered the tiny falling-down mud sill shack of a dwelling there was only a small table, a couple of old wooden chairs and a sink in the corner. When we went to the other room there was only a filthy mattress on the dusty floor, and in state of stunned bewilderment I blurted-out “where are your toys?”. My friend took me outside and showed me a stick and an old car tire to answer my question, his parents were part of the last generation of white farm workers from the south and even though it was the early 1960s the two-room hovel didn’t even have an indoor bathroom.
That same year we had tumbling in school for PE, and one of my classmates was a sweet skinny girl with a big toothy grin and a thick Texas drawl named Rose. When it was her turn to take a roll on the mat we saw that her petticoat was made from brown paper bags and she was wearing a pair of blue denim cutoffs underneath, which caused the entire class to burst out laughing. Rose broke into tears and was consoled by our teacher, who admonished us for our heartless rudeness as she comforted the sobbing child.
Rose left school for the day and soon she and her family were gone for good from their hovel of a home on busy Winchester Boulevard. Her folks were also white farm workers from the south and so were the others in the nearby shacks, and soon the dilapidated structures also disappeared to make way for stores and other businesses. That day will haunt me for the rest of my life, the shame of our insensitivity and the tears of that sweet young girl still make me cry today every time I think about it. I hope Rose is OK today and has forgiven us, though I have my doubts on both counts.
We always had chores and jobs as kids, and my first job at age 5 was picking prunes for five cents a bucket, but try as I might I couldn’t make even close to $1 per-hour. Most afternoons were spent playing at the neighbor’s farm, where we would spend countless hours pretending the rusty model T Fords and other old jalopies behind the barn were race cars, or that the hay loft in the barn was a castle tower. The fruit drying racks were moved to the drying sheds on a network of steel rails, and we would push the trolleys around as we played railroad engineer-this is what kids did before computers took over all their work of their imaginations.
Summers meant a week in at the cousin’s in the small town of Kernville at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountains. This entailed a long Greyhound bus ride to Bakersfield as our family’s only car was our tired Oldsmobile with a big chrome rocket ship hood ornament that dad drove to work, and he was never able to go on these adventures. The bus ride in the Central Valley heat of summer was aboard an elderly coach with no air conditioning or bathroom, and was always packed with Mexican farm workers. Coming into Bakersfield we passed farm worker hovels that were shocking not just in their level of poverty but in their scale as well, it was hard to believe this was in America as it more closely resembled what I saw in Tijuana a few years later.
Every couple of months or so we would take a trip to south San Francisco to visit the grandparents, which was always a treat for us kids. Grandpa would insist on taking us everywhere, which oftentimes meant a pilgrimage to Tanforan Park to watch the horse racing. Mandatory on such outings was a stop on the way back at the bowling alley and pool hall, where Dad and Grandpa would shoot pool and drink Falstaff beer from tall Pilsner glasses as we patiently watched. The racetrack was another lesson in harsh reality for me, as I looked at the grandstands full of elderly folks who were living near the edge of poverty I knew they were spending their pensions and social security checks on those Stubbs of paper that littered the ground. Even at that young age I knew this wasn’t a good thing and it made me feel helpless and sad when I looked at their faces as their hopes died again and again.
We had a good and comfortable life, but there was one time when we knew something was seriously wrong. It was during the Cuban missile crisis, and we knew we had to be ready to “duck-and-cover” like they taught us in school because of the atomic bombs. We had only seen our parents briefly afraid during earthquakes before, but this was something else as ALL the adults were acting oddly, and it lasted for over a week. We were right between an important early warning radar station on top of mount Umunhum and the Moffett field Naval Air Station where the navy kept it’s submarine hunting airplanes which flew over our heads all day at 15 minute intervals, so we figured either way the blast was going to get us.
All this is gone now, the orchards, the farms and barns, the horse racing track and the mud-sill shacks, replaced with soul-less homes and people who have never met their next door neighbor who live their lives via an internet connection. As hard as life was at times I would trade life today for life back then in a heartbeat, we didn’t have much money but still believed in a brighter tomorrow, unlike today when the whole future thing seems much more iffy.